Sunday, January 23, 2011

"Street Photography Now": A New Book Featuring the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Street Photography Now, edited by Sophie Howarth and Stephan McLaren (Thames & Hudson, London, 2010) is a recent compendium of street photography which features some excellent photographers of the genre but is inconsistent in the quality of the work presented. "Street photography" itself is an imperfect definition. It is a term that Garry Winogrand despised ("Just because I did a book about zoos doesn't make me an animal photographer," he said). For him, still photography was the distinctive term. And so arises one of the problems of trying to put together a collection of so-called street photography. As is true with so many areas of photography, it places a misleading emphasis on subject matter and literalness, rather than on artistic approach and underlying meaning. As Richard Lacayo aptly put it in Time magazine, "I'll call it, imperfectly, subjective street photography, though nearly all photography is to some degree subjective and this kind doesn't have to take place in the streets." So right off the bat, you're constraining yourself based on subject and perhaps including work of lesser merit simply because it took place in the street. Another limitation of this book is that it seems to draw heavily upon photographers who happen to be members of the iN-PUBLIC web site. We are informed in the accompanying essay that street photography is enjoying a Renaissance, perhaps because of interest generated on the Internet. Well, I'm glad it's getting attention, but for some of us it never went away. What this book really needed was some stricter editing. Many of the pictures are trite and cliched, or too easy (what Phil Perkis has called "shooting fish in a barrel"). Some of the photographers are outstanding, however, in both their styles and messages. The stand-out bodies of work for me include those of Richard Kalvar, Trent Parke, Martin Parr, Raghu Rai, Otto Snoek and Ying Tang. Others, such as Cristobal Hara and Alex Webb, have some brilliant individual images but lack a sustained vision. The accompanying essay does provide some insight into the historic traditions, even if incomplete (it seems to start with Walker Evans and has many glaring omissions). A cogent analysis of the pitfalls of practicing street photography in these paranoid times is also provided, although the text is sometimes prone toward hyperbole ("Street photographers still wait patiently on dismal street corners while gales of diesel fumes clog their lungs and sting their eyes.") All in all, this is a book worth having; you'll just find yourself skipping around a bit.

Qibao, Shanghai, 2007  ©Ying Tang

A rickshawman taking a nap in Jama Masjid Market, Delhi, 2005
© Raghu Rai